Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Great Country Estates of Britain Series. Part Eight: Althorp....

The Althorp estate has been the ancestral home of the Spencer family since the 16th century. Their fortune derived from its earliest known ancestor, Sir John Spencer of Wormleighton, Warwickshire, who bought Althorp in 1522 with the huge profits from his sheep-rearing business.

The house was originally a red brick Tudor building but its appearance was radically altered in the 18th century when the famous architect Henry Holland (under whom Sir John Soane studied) was commissioned to make extensive changes.

Above: Althorp in the 1820s
Below: Althorp in the 1920s

The interior decor of the house is generally considered its best asset, as the Spencer family has amassed an impressive collection of portraiture, including several van Dycks.

The 9th Earl Spencer in recent years has auctioned some of Althorp's 'best assets', realising £21.1m at Christie’s alone. The two major paintings sold were Rubens’s Portrait of a Com­mander (1614), which had been in the family since before 1802., which went for £9m; and Guercino’s King David (1651), acquired for Spencer House in 1768 but which went to Althorp in 1924, which sold for £5.2m.

Above: Rubens’s Portrait of a Com­mander

Above: 'War and Peace' - A double portrait of George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol and William Russell, 1st Duke of Bedford. 1637. Oil on canvas by Anthony van Dyck.

A further sale at Christie’s of lesser items, including 19th century carriages raised a further £2m.

In his 1998 book on Althorp, The 9th Earl criticised his father for selling off family art treasures. He revealed that "dozens of paintings had gone to London art dealers in laundry baskets from Althorp’s back door". However, it is clear that he has been forced to do the same. In September 2009, Lord Spencer started a major restoration project repairing the roof, stonework and the tiles which clad Althorp. The up-keep on historic family estates remains steep and not all of the money can be made by 'opening your house to the public once a year on Queen Alexandra's day'. As Blackadder would say "needs must when the devil vomits into your kettle".

For a good in-depth post of the Christies Sales read Manner of Man Magazine's article.

Above: The Blue Drawing Room

Below: The Dining Room

Above: The Wooton Hall

Below: The Private Library

The stable block (below) has been converted into an exhibition devoted to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Diana is interred on a small island in the middle of the lake on the estate.

Above: The 'Temple of Diana' Memorial beside the lake

Below: An urn marking the site of her grave on the island in the lake

Above: A portrait of Diana

Althorp has extensive grounds and gardens, and even had its own railway station called Althorp Park on the Northampton Loop line until 1960. (c.f. my dream of Willowbrook Halt)

The estate was first opened to the public in 1953, by the 7th Earl Spencer, to mitigate against taxation, the 9th Earl, in order to maintain Althorp must continue to do the same.

Above: Charles Edward Maurice Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer

For the official Althorp website click here


  1. Maybe not the most grand estate collectively -but certainly the quintessential grand country house!

  2. Surely there has been an increase in ticket sales because of Diana that has only helped with producing revenue. It is sad to see the paintings go, but at least there was something good to sell. In any case, I would love to visit this lovely stately home. __ The Devoted Classicist, http://tdclassicist.blogspot.com

  3. My favourite member of the family was the first Earl Spencer, in the mid 18th century. Some of his family had been a bit grotty, but Earl Spencer chose to be a great patron of the arts. I love his choices in architecture, books, paintings, landscaping and theatre, choices that the current generation of Spencers can be very grateful for.

    Selling off the family silver might be necessary, but I hope some decent curators advised the family on what was rubbish and what was worth keeping.

  4. Fascinating. It's absolutely beautiful. I'd love to visit one day. Thanks for sharing.

  5. The Spencer family is one of the oldest and most important in Britain, but the Windsor family presented Diana to the world as simple "kindergarten teacher". Why?

  6. I am not sure that it was the Windsors doing, nor that she was a 'simple' kindergarten teacher. As you allude, her ancestry was anything but simple. I think that being a kindergarten teacher was an aspect of Diana's life which the media were interested in because it made for a Cinderella-styled romance.

    Palace life and royal relationships are seldom simple, and one thing that can be counted on is that the press is usually only after a good story, not a true and accurate account of someone's life (to which they are not privy, nor should they be).


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